It was back in February when Emma Hayes was asked if she was interested in taking up the newly vacant job at AFC Wimbledon.
Did the Chelsea Women’s boss want to become the first female manager in the men’s game?
Or, to put it another way, did she fancy giving up her job in charge of the best women’s team in the country, coaching the finest players, winning titles and making history for a shot at keeping a club on a run of nine straight home defeats in League One.
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes (above) has often been dubbed ‘the female Brian Clough’
The answer, you might not be shocked to find out, was no. To paint such an opportunity as one to leap at, she said, was ‘an insult’ to women’s football. Not to mention she was adamant AFC Wimbledon could not afford her.
‘I don’t know why anyone would think women’s football is a step down from the men’s game,’ she said. ‘The football world needs to wake up. While the game is played by a different gender, it’s exactly the same sport.’
And why would she? A day after AFC Wimbledon crept to survival despite defeat in their penultimate league game of the season, Hayes’ Chelsea despatched Bayern Munich 4-1 to overturn a first-leg deficit and became only the second English team to reach the Women’s Champions League final. A week later they retained the Women’s Super League title.
This evening they face Barcelona to become European champions. Victory would represent their third trophy of the season after the League Cup and the title.
Hayes rejected the chance to take charge at League One AFC Wimbledon in February
They have the fifth round of the FA Cup still to come too.
Hayes has a chance to accomplish something that even Pep Guardiola was unable to do this season. Something her father’s hero, Brian Clough, never did. Win the quadruple.
What is it that makes Hayes one of the best coaches in the world? She’s outspoken, or as she prefers to call it, ‘honest’. She’s a master tactician. A video of her barking instructions at Chelsea players Sam Kerr and Pernille Harder during their win over Wolfsburg recently went viral. Hayes can be heard telling Kerr to ‘do the double press’ while telling Harder to get further ‘up the pitch because of the high full backs’. It’s a coaching masterclass.
But, perhaps most importantly, it’s her ability to inspire. Like all great coaches, it’s being able to motivate everyone, whether a first-team regular or a squad player who thinks they should be more. The ability to keep them all involved, to know their importance and make them feel a valued member of something bigger than themselves. Hayes shows her team motivational videos of other sports stars in the build-up to matches, whether that be Michael Jordan or UFC fighter Rose Namajunas — or even of a flock of geese flying in a V formation to explain how they each have a role, each supporting others to allow them to fly further.
Hayes has won the WSL title and League Cup – now she is chasing Champions League glory
‘She’s really motivating,’ says Harder, who became the world’s most expensive women’s player when Chelsea signed her in the summer for £250,000.
‘She has these motivational videos before the games to try and give us inspiration from other people from other sports, which is really cool.
‘It’s really different, it can be anything — Michael Jordan, people in Esports, a video with geese, a boxer. What the videos tell us is how champions are made and the mentality of them. It’s good to get inspired by people in other sports.’
And it works. Hayes has won four WSL titles, two FA Cups and two League Cups in eight-and-a-half-years at the helm.
‘It’s a team where everyone gives something to the team,’ says Harder. ‘In training, outside the pitch, on the pitch, we work together, all of us. That’s also why we’ve been so successful.’
Hayes shows her team motivational videos of other sports stars in the build-up to matches
Hayes learned the importance of building a team and a culture from Vic Akers, the former Arsenal kit man and women’s team manager who won 11 league titles between 1992 and 2009.
Under Akers, Arsenal became the first English club to reach the Women’s Champions League final in 2007. And to win it. Hayes was his assistant.
Their Champions League triumph was part of the same quadruple that Hayes could emulate.
Akers tells the Mail on Sunday: ‘Emma invited me to see them train and I had the same feeling watching them as I did my team. They were all working hard, training hard with smiles on their faces.
‘She is very thorough in everything she does. She was always very confident and good at her work and has gone on to be arguably the best female coach in women’s football. It’s been a long wait for another English team in the final. I don’t see them losing.’